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Ballygalget retain Down hurling title with slender win over Portaferry

Ballygalget players enjoy their second consecutive Down hurling crown Picture by Philip Walsh
Neil Loughran in Ballycran

Morgan Fuels Down Senior Hurling Championship final: Ballygalget 2-13 Portaferry 2-12

IT took extra-time to separate Ballygalget and Portaferry when they met in the round-robin series earlier this month, and when referee Colin Murray put the whistle to his lips for a final time yesterday there was only the slightest shaft of daylight between them again.

For a second time in-a-row it was the men in green who edged home, inspired by a crucial Cormac Coulter goal 11 minutes before the end.

It was a bitter blow for Noel Sands’ men as they looked to have seized control when the manager’s son Daithi got the merest touch to a searching ball into the square from Kevin McGarry, the sliothar bouncing beyond Jamie Crowe in the ’Galget goals to put Portaferry noses in front by two.

But Ballygalget showed the spirit of champions as they roared back with an unanswered 1-2 inside the next seven minutes, Coulter applying the coup de grace when he rose to collect an inch-perfect pass from Mark Fisher before turning and flashing past Karol Keating from close range.

Portaferry displayed guts themselves as they fought back valiantly in the dying stages but, thanks largely to the unerring free-taking of Gareth Johnston, Ballygalget managed to keep their rivals at arm’s length as they secured a second Down championship title in-a-row.

The fact they became the first club to have retained the coveted trophy since achieving the same feat in 2008 made it all the sweeter.

“Fair play to youse boys putting up with us,” said captain Ben Toner to the Ballygalget management team from the stand at McKenna Park.

“There were times in February-March when, let’s not lie about it, there was eight or nine boys turning out to train. I don’t know how you boys kept with us but we got through it, and we got this here at the end of it.”

A hearty roar went up among the Ballygalget supporters on the pitch below, the scene of battle just minutes previous as an entertaining showdown went some way to banishing the memories of last year’s final wash-out.

That day, at a wind and rain-lashed Portaferry, Ballygalget beat Ballycran 0-6 to 0-2. A win’s a win, the players didn’t care, but with so few scores – and none at all after half-time – yesterday’s encounter didn’t have much to live up to.

The eight-point total had thankfully been surpassed 16 minutes in when Johnston put Ballygalget a point ahead, 1-2 to 1-1.

Daithi Sands had sent Portaferry into the lead when he found the net after 11 minutes, the pacy forward quickest off the mark to fire home after Crowe batted the sliothar straight into his path from Paul Braniff’s dropping effort.

Two minutes later another defensive mishap, this time from Portaferry, allowed man-of-the-match Cormac Coulter to grab his first goal of the day.

He ran onto a breaking ball when Brook Byers’ high delivery wasn’t adequately dealt with and, the goal at his mercy, Coulter made no mistake, shooting low under Keating.

It was tit-for-tat for the remainder of the half as the game struggled to find any real rhythm, some natives growing increasingly restless in the stand.

“Flake the bloody ball,” roared one disgruntled punter, “friggin’ hand passing, hand passing around the middle of the field... and for what?”

He had a point as the tight Ballycran pitch, hemmed in by supporters on either side, offered up little space, with Portaferry’s nippy Sands brothers – Daithi and Eoghan – looking most likely to exploit any gaps.

The scores were level at 1-6 apiece at half-time, and it wasn’t until Daithi Sands’ second goal of the day 12 minutes after the break that there was any breathing room at all, and even that was soon restricted amid the on-field claustrophobia.

When Coulter followed Sands’ lead again, rattling the back of the net for a second time, Ballygalget led 2-11 to 2-8. In a game that flowed one way, then the next, this would prove a decisive blow.

Portaferry recovered to an extent, landing three of the next four scores – a Paul Braniff effort from the right the pick – but just couldn’t close the gap.

Caolan Bailie bagged a crucial score six minutes from time to settle ’Galget nerves heading down the straight and the defending champions managed to keep their noses in front to seal back to back titles.

“There was very little between the two teams really, we knew it was going to be very tight,” said a relieved Paddy Monan, part of the Ballygalget management team.

“Thank God we got out. We could’ve very easily downed tools after they got their second goal, but our boys responded very well to that and we got a couple of crucial scores and went on to get the victory.

“The focus for us was to win the Down championship. There was no craic about back-to-backs or anything like that, we just wanted to win here today and go wherever that takes us.”

First of all it takes them to an Ulster Championship semi-final against Lisbellaw on October 8, with reigning provincial kingpins Slaughtneil or Antrim champions Dunloy awaiting the winners in the final.

Having been well beaten by Loughgiel in the last four in 2016, Ballygalget will be strong favourites to make it to the Ulster decider on 22.

For Portaferry, meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board. Without a Down championship since 2014, they’ll be back for more next year, but yesterday was one of frustration for boss Sands.

He pointed to some cheap frees conceded at one end and opportunities passed up at the other as the main reason his team had come out on the wrong side of the result.

“We’ve been working on our tackling all year to try and not give away silly frees, especially in front of goal where, with Gareth Johnston there, it’s like buns to a bear for that man,” said Sands amid the sound of celebrations from the Ballygalget dressing room.

“Our work-rate too, at times... we talked about the secondary ball because their work-rate is extremely good, we needed to match it. At times we did, but a few times when we needed the ball we just weren’t seeing it.

“We had chances but missed them, and those are then margins you live and die by. It’s very disappointing, but we’ll take it on the chin and bounce back next year.”

Ballygalget: J Crowe; E Clarke (0-1), J McManus, J Smyth; E Coulter, B Toner, P McManus; G Johnston (0-6, 0-4 frees), B Byers; G Roddy (0-2), C Bailie (0-1), D McManus; M Fisher, C Coulter (2-3), D Toner. Subs: J Doran for Smyth (42)

Portaferry: K Keating (0-1 free); N White, C O’Neill, D Mallon; C O’Prey, C Taggart, D Coffey; J Gilmore, A Savage; C Fay, K McGarry (0-1), B Trainor; D Sands (2-3), E Sands (0-1), P Braniff (0-6, 0-4 frees).

Subs: J Convery for Taggart (22), A O’Prey for Fay (h-t), E O’Neill for D Mallon (53).

Yellow cards: C O’Prey (35), J Gilmore (35)

Referee: C Murray (Darragh Cross)

 

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